This post is about variety in violins, why it is important, where it come from, and how it has been influenced by mechanization. I will also look at the effects and possibilities of digitization on modern violinmaking.
Every violin that you come across is slightly different from the last one. They are as similar to, or as different from each other, as two leaves from an oak tree. This amount of variability, the degree to which objects are similar, is important to us because as animals who survive and thrive by spotting and exploiting patterns in our environment, we are highly tuned to spotting similarities and differences. The degree of variability that we encounter flavors our relationship with the objects we see. Less variability and the subject becomes familiar or even boring; too much variability is unsettling or even threatening. But the right level of novelty or ‘theme and variation”, is interesting and engaging to us. I believe that the most attractive instruments are those which show a degree of variability that is similar to that which we see in Nature
Tiger Cowries. Each one unique
Sources of Variation in Violins
Where does this variation in violins come from, and what are the things that affect the degree to which it happens.?
- Design. The intentional variations in structure and use of materials leading to different performance outcomes in sound, playability and appearance.
- Materials. Violins are built from wood, a natural organic material, which was itself shaped in reaction to the environment in which it grew. No two pieces of wood are quite the same, either visually or mechanically, thus even with identical design and execution, violins built of wood will all be slightly different.
- Execution: The variations introduced by imperfect implementation of a design. The variation may be deliberate or accidental depending on the degree precision that the maker is capable of, or the degree of freedom that they allow themselves.
- Aging: Interaction with the world. This is often the largest source of visual variation between instruments, it may also be a cause of tonal variations as well.
- Tone. Old instruments are commonly held to have preferred tonal qualities possibly arising from a structural change in the wood as it ages. There is also a strong belief that the repeated use of an instrument causes it to vibrate more freely over time.
- Visual. The effects of age may be seen as physical wear and accretions, but there are also unseen differences…
- Metaphysical. All instruments come with a history and stories attached: “This violin belonged to my grandmother”, “This is the first example of a modern neck” etc. Some of that history can be seen as physical marks on an instrument, some is just attached by memory, but all of it affects our relationship with the instrument and the degree to which we value it.
Modes of Production and their Effect on Variety
The way in which a violin was made affect both the way that the finished instrument looks and the way it functions. Makers (individuals and factories) start out with different objectives and intentions, and they use different production techniques all of which affect the degree to which their instruments vary one from another.
Designer – builder. The lone violinmaker who makes the instrument start to finish, may change the design of each instrument they make to achieve particular tonal or visual results, or in reaction to the materials that they have on hand to work with. Experiments, such as changing the shape and layout of f-holes, may be undertaken as the maker seeks to better understand the way that violins work. I believe that a spirit of inquiry and exploration is visible in the work of designer-builders and is something that distinguishes it from production work.
Execution and control. In executing their designs, different makers show different degrees of control in their building techniques. Stradivari showed a high degree of control and repeatability in his instruments while Guarnieri Del Gesu, notoriously, did not. Whether Del Gesu did this deliberately or even consciously is debatable, but the higher degree of variability between instruments, and the lower degree of control, did create violins with a more organic, human feel than Strad’s.
Mass Production. The aim of production is to make items that are completely predictable, where each violin does not have to be individually assessed. When we see an X-brand production violin, we know what we are getting. The means of production are heavy on design and control. All design decisions are made at the beginning of the process and execution techniques are strictly prescribed. In its highest form, individual components of production instruments are standardized so that any one pre-made part will fit into place and do its job perfectly without further adjustment. All of this predictability saves time and reduces monetary cost, but the flip side of “predictable” is “boring”. Variety is the spice of life – indeed, according to the Darwinian way of thinking, variety is one of the essential ingredients of Life.
Materials. One of the things that redeems production instruments is that wood is organic and therefore variable. This means that some production violins off of the same line are better than others. Even this small amount of variety can be removed. One of the trends in production instruments is towards the use of inorganic materials, such as carbon fiber and plastic, which are more predictable and have other attributes like low cost, durability and not directly harming trees. The common assessment of instruments made of synthetic materials is that, on the plus side they are reliable, durable and reassuringly predictable in a wide range of environments, but ultimately, their predictability makes them boring.
The effect of mass production techniques is to strip the organic feel and the humanity out of the finished instrument. One of the things that distinguishes handmade from production instruments is, in my imagination at least, the spirit of exploration. The sense you get that the individual maker was grappling with questions of discovery like “how can I make a better neck?” or “why shouldn’t I make all eight corners different?” This approach necessarily leads to variety, some variations desirable, others not so much. The maker on the production floor, on the other hand, is only concerned with sticking to the script and reducing the risk of errors.
I’ve been drawing a sharp division between Handmade and Production instruments, in actuality there is a continuum. Production techniques are used in handmade instruments and visa versa. For instance, handmade instruments are made with the use of templates to quickly standardize parts and reduce variability. In classically organized violinshops, creativity by apprentices is not usually encouraged. They are expected to follow directions and not think too much. Many modern designer-builders have the same machines in their shops that the factories have. Production factories have varying degrees of mechanization. Even today many of the largest factories rely mostly on handwork, with many workers specializing in a single task like carving scrolls, setting necks, and cutting f-holes with hand tools. As I said earlier, I think that the important distinction between instruments by any of these modes of production is the amount of exploration and inquiry that drove the creation of that instrument.
Making Violins in the Digital Age
The coming of the Digital Age has had several interesting effects on violinmaking:
- Precise production techniques. The use of CNC (Computer Numeric Controlled) machines and robots allow an even greater degree of control and standardization. So far this has mostly been seen in the guitar industry but it is coming to Violinworld.
- More accurate copies. Technology is allowing ever more precise measurements of existing instruments. There is a large section of the violin making / violin dealing community that holds making a precise replica of a revered old violin as the pinnacle of contemporary violinmaking achievement. Digital photography shared on the internet, CT scans and 3D scans have all allowed deeper access to this rabbit hole
More interesting perhaps is the idea of deliberately introduced variety. What if we used computers to program in controlled amount of variety into violins? Those slight inaccuracies in symmetry that we value in classic master instruments could be generated from random numbers. This could give the production instruments more of the interest and feel of handmade ones. Taking it further, instruments could include a decorative pattern, perhaps like those in my Off-beat violins, but instead of making a thousand identical Turtle Fiddles (boring), you could make a thousand slightly different ones.
To my knowledge this use of a computer to deliberately introduce variety in to violins has not been done and I intend to explore some of the possibilities through a series of experimental instruments that I have already started.
Variations on a Theme? My Theme is Variation
While I hope that the finished instruments will be attractive or at least thought-provoking, the real value of them to me will be the insights that I gain from the process of exploration and discovery.
The series starts with a violin based on the work of Alan Turing, slayer of the Enigma machine and the father of the modern computer. After his war efforts, Turing became interested in variation in nature: the way that tigers look similar to each other, yet no two tigers are alike. He came up with some simple equations which can generate infinite variations on a theme. To do this work with Turing patterns, I sought the help of a design professor in Istanbul who has been using Turing patterns in his work for years.